PETER THE GREAT AS A SKEPTIC

(Investigator 6, 1989 May)
 

Peter Woolcock Ph.d.

(Dr. Woolcock is a lecturer in Philosophy at the S.A. College
of Advanced Education and is president of The Skeptics, S.A.)


Those of you who watched "Peter the Great" on television may well have wondered how much of it was true. If you have read Robert MASSIE's biography of Peter the Great, you would know that skepticism about the reliability of the TV series was often warranted. For example, there is no evidence other than rumour that Peter actually wielded the headsman's axe himself.

In fact, Peter would have sympathised with your skepticism, being somewhat of a skeptic himself – not a full skeptic as he was, after all, a sixteenth century Russian. Nonetheless, enough of a skeptic for his time for us to see him as a forebear, as the following extract from Massies's book illustrates. (Peter the Great built the city of St. Petersburg, now Leningrad, to provide the Russian fleet with a Baltic port, then forced large numbers of people to live there.)

"In 1720, an icon of the Virgin Mary in a church in St. Petersburg was said to be shedding tears because she was obliged to live in so dismal a part of the world. Chancellor Golovkin heard the report and went to the church, forcing his way through a dense crowd which had gathered to marvel at the phenomenon. Golovkin immediately sent for Peter, who was a day's journey away, inspecting the Ladoga Canal.

Peter came at once, travelling all night, and went directly to the church. The priests took him to the miraculous icon, which at that moment was dry-eyed, although numerous spectators assured him that they had seen.

Peter stared up at the icon, which was covered with paint and thick varnish, and decided that something about it looked suspicious. He ordered it lifted down from its elevated position and brought to his palace, where in the presence of the Chancellor, many noblemen, the leaders of the clergy and the priests who had been present when the icon was taken down, he proceeded to examine it. He soon found several tiny holes in the corners of the eyes which the shadows created by the curve of the eyes made invisible from below.

Turning the icon around, he stripped away the cloth that covered it behind. A little cavity had been hollowed out of the wooden plank, and in it was a small residue of congealed oil. "Here is the source of the miraculous tears", Peter declared, summoning everyone present to come close and see for themselves. The congealed oil remained solid as long as the icon was in a cold place, he explained, but during a service, when the surrounding air was heated by the burning candles placed before the icon, the oil became fluid and the Virgin "wept".

Peter was delighted with the ingenuity of the mechanism and kept the icon for his Cabinet of Curiosities. But he was extremely angry at the charlatan who had invoked superstition to threaten his new city. The perpetrator was found "and so severely chastised that no one afterward thought proper to attempt anything of a similar nature."

As we know, people have often thought it desirable to attempt things of a similar nature, for whatever reasons. While it may be pleasant to toy with the idea of Skeptic-Kings with the power of Peter the Great to "chasten" the credulous and their deceivers, we can only be grateful that our power is restricted to the appropriate form of persuasion by argument and example.


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